The North American Hockey League West Division only has four teams, so before the puck even dropped on the season’s opening night, all four teams had sewn up spots in the playoffs.
With late-season dates filled with divisional games, it was easy to look ahead and wonder if anything would be on the line in the final games.
“With only four teams in the division, I can see how some people would say that,” Kenai River assistant Nick Shackford said. “It hasn’t been like that at all.”
The Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild and Fairbanks Ice Dogs are locked in a battle for the top spot in the West Division and a home-ice path to the Robertson Cup finals.
The Wild currently lead the division with 78 points, while Fairbanks is right behind at 75 — and closing fast.
Wenatchee appeared to climb out of reach with a seven-game winning streak in the first part of February, but since then the Wild have four points in their last seven games. That includes a three-game sweep at the hands of Fairbanks last weekend.
The Ice Dogs slogged through the first part of February, getting two points in five games. But since then, they have reeled off seven straight victories.
The Brown Bears will be the third seed out of the West, while the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters will be fourth, but both teams will have a say in deciding the division championship.
Fairbanks and Wenatchee each have seven games left, but do not play each other the rest of the way. All their games are against Kenai River or Fresno.
The Wild come to the Soldotna Sports Center for games today, Friday and Saturday. The puck drops at 7:05 p.m. today, and 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
“Wenatchee is on a four-game losing streak,” Shackford said. “They’re in a spot right now where they need to turn it on and we expect them to turn it on.
“They’re a great hockey club coached by a very good coach. I expect nothing but their best stuff coming at us.”
The Bears are 3-4-2 against the Wild this year, while the Wild are 6-3 against the Bears.
The last time the two met was Jan. 26 in Wenatchee, a 2-1 Brown Bears victory that also resulted in the viral Internet video of Wenatchee assistant Chris Clark wandering around the ice and acting like a blind man as a way of commenting on the officiating.
Wenatchee head coach Bliss Littler was suspended five games for the incident, while Clark can’t apply for reinstatement until March 25.
“These teams don’t really like each other on the ice,” Shackford said. “This should be pretty intense.”
The Bears had lost four straight — all to Fairbanks — before beating Fresno March 7 and Friday. However, Fresno’s Tomas Sholl made 61 saves to beat the Bears on Saturday.
“We just ran into a hot goaltender,” Shackford said. “It’s a pretty frustrating thing to go through. We were playing well, we just weren’t scoring.”
Wenatchee has one of the league’s top goaltenders in Robert Nichols. Nichols is third in the NAHL with a 2.07 goals-against average. Like Sholl, Nichols will play Division I hockey next year. He will enroll at the University of Connecticut.
Shackford said Evan McCarthy will be in net for the Bears because Marcus Zelzer is still recovering from a knee injury.
“He’s practicing and he looks good,” Shackford said of Zelzer. “We just want to make sure we’re doing the right thing and not rushing him back.”
McCarthy has played the last eight games for the Bears. After a rough start, he has had a save percentage over .900 in five of his last six games.
Wenatchee’s chief sniper is Jono Davis, who will play Division I hockey at University of Nebraska-Omaha next year. Davis leads the division, and is ninth in the league, with 54 points.
Besides Zelzer, Shackford said the Bears are healthy coming into the series.
“We want everything clicking going into the playoffs,” Shackford said. “This is going to be fun. This is the best part of the year.”